After making quintessential #MeToo movie The Assistant, director Kitty Green returns to break down the nuances of sexual harassment once more. While her debut, starring Julia Garner as a young woman who works for a sexually abusive movie mogul (ring any bells?), The Royal Hotel focuses on harassment in a different kind of workplace — but is no less of a #MeToo project.
Garner reunites with Green to lead the film alongside Glass Onion star Jessica Henwick as protagonists Hanna and Liv. They’re best friends backpacking around Australia who run out of money. In a small outback town, they resort to working behind a bar packed with misogynistic, dissatisfied, bored men — most of whom work in the mines nearby. They become possessive over Hanna and Liv, calling dibs on who “gets” them. Even the owner abuses Hanna for not smiling while serving. Both field threatening and unsolicited advances while trying to earn money and stay safe in an unfamiliar environment, never knowing who to trust.
The problematic relationship between labour and sexual harassment is cleverly flagged at the beginning of the film, primarily in the job centre scene, when an executive tells Hanna and Liv they’ll “have to be OK with male attention” if they want the job. It’s astounding, this non-negotiable requirement to endure harassment while providing labour; the two come hand in hand. And when Hanna and Liv realise the extent of this dangerous workplace, they can’t afford to leave — they’re trapped in an abusive dynamic by financial need.
Liv and Hanna are told they’ll “have to be OK with male attention” if they want the job. Credit: Universal Pictures
Significantly, Green made the decision not to include a scene of sexual assault, avoiding specificity for nuance to more effectively connect with the insidious spectrum of sexual harassment and how deeply entrenched it is in our working culture. These dynamics impact victims’ daily lives, not to mention their relationship with their work.
The Royal Hotel is based on a true story
The Royal Hotel doesn’t invent these circumstances. It’s inspired by a documentary called Hotel Coolgardie, which tells the real story of two (female) Finnish backpackers, Lina and Steph, who take a job working and living in a Western Australian bar to make money after being robbed in Bali. While working there, they endured sexual harassment from patrons and locals.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, Lina described how they “didn’t want to lose the job, because we needed the money. So we had to bite our tongues and be nice and polite, then cry behind closed doors”.
“It did feel like we were being objectified,” she added. “Every day we got to hear that we were stupid. Or dumb as a horse. Something like that.”
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Through Hanna and Liv’s experience, The Royal Hotel perfectly encapsulates the toxic, cyclical relationship between labour and sexual harassment, and how victims, particularly women, are often trapped within a dynamic of exploitation, discomfort and trauma due to the relationship they have with their job. According to the International Labour Organisation, the gender gap in employment means that women are more likely to find themselves in lower-paid jobs, while UK governmental research also found that young women aged 16-25 are at higher risk of sexual exploitation and harassment due to their “lack of experience in the workplace, lower position in organisational hierarchies, and higher likelihood of economic precarity”.
When it comes to sexual harassment of workers in the service industry specifically, the situation seems to be deteriorating. Research in 2018 found that nine out of 10 hospitality workers reported experiencing abuse, and another study finding that 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men dealt with some form of sexual harassment while working in restaurants. By 2022, research found that service workers were less able to identify sexual harassment on the job because it has become so prevalent.
The normalisation of toxic workplace dynamics
This problem begins, and ends, with the normalisation of toxic dynamics when it comes to how we understand and interact with female labour.
“Research has shown women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment in the workplace and this disproportionate prevalence is linked to their disparity of power in the workplace, relative to perpetrators,” Deeba Syed, senior legal officer at charity Rights of Women explains to Mashable.
According to Syed, higher rates of abuse and harassment occur in industries where there is lower pay and more precarious circumstances such as zero-hour contracts – meaning “less unionised workforces”. This reduced access to employment rights for women can also be exacerbated by “intersecting discrimination” through age, race, sexual orientation, and disabilities, further “compounding [women’s] experiences of sexual harassment and fair outcomes”.
“Many women feel they have no choice but to resign over harassment or are forced out of jobs and careers they need or want.”
The cycle, she adds, is then strengthened by a “weaponising” of this gender inequality against women, meaning they are unlikely to report harassment to their employers due to the harsh reality that they are less “less likely to be believed and treated as more expendable to the organisation”. More than that, Syed says, “They are also less likely to have the financial means to hold the employer to account legally, which is why unfortunately many women feel they have no choice but to resign over harassment or are forced out of jobs and careers they need or want.”
Hugo Weaving as pub manager Billy. Credit: Universal Pictures
Alongside Hanna and Liv’s experiences, Green applies another layer to this theme with the character of Carol (Ursula Yovich), the pub manager Billy (Hugo Weaving)’s partner. Initially an unfriendly host to Hanna and Liv, Carol’s own story and relationship with abuse unfolds as the film does. While she’s not sexually harassed, Carol upholds the bar’s abusive system in a different way, through her own labour. We see her chopping wood and carrying out other physical tasks while Billy lies around drunk. She begs him to pay his workers and ensure their safety, but to no avail. Carol is a sophisticated example of the many casualties of a labour system reliant on women sacrificing themselves physically and emotionally, while not holding any real power.
In this system, women are either forced out of jobs they don’t want, or feel trapped in an abusive workplace due to their own financial precarity. “Women’s economic inequality is both cause and consequence of gender-based violence,” Viktoria Szczypior, communications officer at feminist economics think tank Women’s Budget Group, tells Mashable, detailing what is necessary for this cycle to be broken.
“If we want women to be able to leave abusive employment situations without putting their livelihoods at risk, we must ensure better pay and conditions.”
“If we want women to be able to leave abusive employment situations without putting their livelihoods at risk, we must ensure better pay and conditions, access to affordable childcare and social care and reduce insecurity for low-paid workers by extending employment rights and investing in strong and effective enforcement,” she says. “We also need a justice system and a social security system that are fit for purpose.”
Credit: Universal Pictures
The labour gender gap also deeply impacts the economy
Notably, research has proven that this situation isn’t benefiting the economy itself, let alone numerous victims’ livelihoods and wellbeing. According to a UK government report released this year, the reduced wages that women often experience after leaving jobs due to sexual harassment and exploitation have a shrinking effect on a country’s overall economy.
The International Labour Organisation also found that “reducing gender gaps in labour force participation could substantially boost global GDP”. It’s a toxic element of our culture that also impacts our economy, so change is way overdue.
But while the overarching relationship between sexual harassment and women’s positions of power in the workplace is both complicated and pervasive, experts say we are seeing change.
“Huge gains have been made in recent years in the wake of #MeToo in exposing the prevalence and severity of sexual harassment faced by women,” Syed says. Organisations are fighting for ways to support women dealing with this abuse at work, with Rights of Women giving free legal advice to victims and fighting for better legal protections and NABS offering emotional support and practical guidance. But we need it to be happening on a much larger scale.
“This work has to — and is — happening alongside a women’s movement that is challenging the gender pay gap,” Syed adds. “This unity has the potential to shift the dial on engrained power imbalances.”
Green’s decision to showcase the complexities of sexual harassment onscreen, as well as its symbiotic relationship with women’s labour and their place in the working world, is an important one. It underscores the crucial need for women to be able to work in safe spaces, and feel able – emotionally, physically and financially – to call out dangerous behaviour.
The director has described the messages behind The Royal Hotel as “a narrative about strength” and a “film about women saying no”. Her first film was used in compulsory sexual harassment training for New York City’s government – perhaps this one can work as a rallying cry against the toxic cycle between sexual harassment and female labour and the importance of fighting against it.
How to watch: The Royal Hotel is now available on video on demand in the U.S. and is showing in cinemas in the UK.